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Investigators in Europe fear new terror strikes

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network is in headlong retreat in Afghanistan and European police are rounding up other suspected terrorists, but investigators say a web of Islamic extremists remains on the continent and still poses a threat of attacks.

European authorities believe that triumphs on the battlefields in Afghanistan, including the killing of Al Qaeda military commander Mohammed Atef, and their own quieter victories in cracking terror cells have disrupted Bin Laden’s network.

But the loose-knit organization already in place does not need direct orders from the top to function. “Sleeper” terrorists in position before Sept. 11 could be planning attacks against Western interests in general and U.S. targets in particular, authorities say. A pan-Islamic legion of thousands has trained in the now-devastated Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and operates underground throughout Europe, according to police and terrorism experts.

“They have succeeded in creating a very motivated core that is present everywhere,” said Alain Grignard, a Belgian expert on Islamic terrorism who is also a police commander in Brussels. “They don’t work like an army with a general who tells them what to do. The groups have a certain autonomy.”

New arrests in Spain and France have contributed to a picture of an interconnected network of cells that reaches into Britain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

On Sunday, a Spanish judge accused members of an alleged terror cell in Madrid of providing false identity cards and money to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

The eight suspected cell members, arrested last week, were “directly related to the preparation and development of the attacks perpetrated by suicide pilots on Sept. 11,” Judge Baltasar Garzon wrote in a court order.

In charging the Islamic militants with membership in Al Qaeda, prosecutors cited telephone intercepts and phone numbers found in the papers of one of the suspected hijackers, Spanish newspapers reported. If proved, the charges would provide fertile new ground for U.S. authorities in the Sept. 11 investigation.

European authorities fear that other extremists with loose ties to Al Qaeda may attempt attacks, either because they already had operations planned or because they want to make a statement in the wake of Al Qaeda’s military losses. And individuals might spontaneously strike against “targets of opportunity.”

Europe is central to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism because the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were carried out by terrorists who either lived in Europe or passed through European capitals in the months before the hijackings.

The investigation of the hijacking plot has focused increasingly on evidence of links between some of the hijackers and accused Islamic terrorists in Europe, especially because U.S. authorities apparently have failed to implicate any of the roughly 1,200 suspects detained in the U.S. in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The ultimate fear of investigators in Europe is that an already entrenched team of the caliber of the Sept. 11 hijackers is preparing a devastating attack or series of strikes.

A report issued Wednesday by the British government warned: “Based on our experience of the way the network has operated in the past, other cells, like those that carried out the terrorist attacks on 11 September, must be assumed to exist.”

There are indications that “two or three” major plots were set in motion before the hijack attacks in the United States and that they could be well underway, a European intelligence source said.

“I think the Al Qaeda operations are in a real advanced stage of planning,” the intelligence source said. “Osama bin Laden follows a plan along a certain timeline, going step by step, and the next step was planned long ago.”

Al Qaeda has clearly been weakened by the combined military and law enforcement assault around the world. But because they are often self-contained and plan well ahead, Al Qaeda cells remain a viable threat, a U.S. official said.

“If their operation is already in place and they’ve already done their intelligence and surveillance, they could still pull something off,” the official said. “You can’t rule out the most obscure, far-fetched Tom Clancy scenario.”

Another sobering assessment came from a well-placed observer: Sheik Omar Bakri Mohammed, a legal scholar in London who denies allegations that he recruits militants for training in Afghanistan. Bakri insists there is no proof that Bin Laden ordered the Sept. 11 attacks, but he added: “If he did, he is capable of doing anything in Europe.”

European police keep finding evidence of the breadth of the Bin Laden organization.

In Madrid, Spanish police said the alleged kingpin of the cell broken up last week had direct contact with Bin Laden. It was the first arrest of such a potentially prominent figure since the crackdown began.

Syrian-born Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, who has Spanish citizenship and goes by the alias Abu Dahdah, was ordered held along with seven other men accused of acting as a recruitment cell for the terror network.

Detainee Allegedly Recruited for Bin Laden

Barakat “is considered the representative of the Bin Laden organization in Spain,” police said in a statement.

In addition to recruiting young Muslims and dispatching them to training camps in Afghanistan, the cell financed the movement with credit card fraud and provided fake documents and other assistance to terrorists in transit, police said.

Barakat and the others may have met with Bin Laden during frequent travels across Europe and to Turkey, Malaysia, the Philippines and probably Afghanistan, according to Spanish national police chief Juan Cotino.

Spanish police described the cell as part of a broader network of Al Qaeda groups. They described several contacts between the alleged cell in Spain and members of groups broken up by police in France, Britain and Germany, as well as six suspected Algerian terrorists rounded up in Spain on Sept. 26.

Cotino also accused Barakat of working closely with three high-profile figures who are under police surveillance in other European countries but, to the chagrin of anti-terrorist investigators, remain free.

Cotino’s public declaration seemed to put pressure on authorities elsewhere to arrest the trio: Tarek Maaroufi, who is at large in Belgium despite an extradition request by Italian authorities; outspoken radical cleric Omar Mahmoud abu Omar, also known as Abu Qatada, in London; and Mamoun Darkazanli, a Syrian-born German citizen whose funds were frozen as part of a worldwide crackdown on terrorism financing, police said.

Until now, authorities have said that they lacked sufficient evidence to arrest the suspects despite intense suspicions.

“Hopefully, this will be the drop of water that overflows the glass and will result in their arrests,” said a European police investigator.

Based on materials seized by police, the Spanish cell resembled groups arrested recently in France and Italy: Videos of Islamic fighters in Chechnya, firearms, computer equipment and counterfeit travel documents and credit cards were found. The suspected recruiters had been under surveillance for some time, police said.

Similarly, French police had kept close tabs on six Arab men arrested the weekend of Nov. 10 in connection with a plot to bomb civilian targets in Strasbourg during the Christmas holidays last year. The alleged ringleaders were arrested in December 2000, but police have continued to pursue other suspected accomplices.

To a large extent, European anti-terrorist forces are not discovering new suspects but merely pulling in investigative nets that were cast months or even years ago.

“We have clearly destabilized them,” the European investigator said. “We are eliminating all the known figures. There are two ways to see this: There is the positive, optimist perspective. We are making progress. But now they could also be more invisible. It’s the classic dilemma of intelligence work versus police work. It is always helpful to let the networks function, to see where they lead you. But this is a period where the police have no choice: We are obliged to act because there could be an attack.”

During the last five or six years, European governments have been confronted with Muslim terrorists who turned their rage and weapons away from localized conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya and Algeria and aimed them squarely at the United States.

No matter how many cells they dismantle, police and intelligence officials are challenged by Bin Laden’s exhortations to disaffected young men in Europe’s impoverished Muslim quarters. Al Qaeda has trained selected young men sent to the Afghan camps, then deployed them back in Europe without specific instructions--only a general order to pursue violence against Western and U.S. targets.

European-based cells generally are not as sophisticated or disciplined as the Sept. 11 group, which coordinated the hijacking and crashes of four planes, said Roland Jacquard, a French expert with close ties to intelligence services. But they are capable of pulling off “conventional terrorist attacks--with explosives, for instance.”

A more long-term concern is that Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters will flee Afghanistan and set up new operations in other Muslim regions, such as Chechnya or Bosnia, where they will attempt to reestablish contacts with allies in Europe. If there is a heightened refugee flow from Afghanistan into Europe, police will have to watch for terrorists trying to pose as immigrants, the European investigator said.

During the last decade, Bin Laden’s clandestine fighters have taken advantage of lightly enforced borders, permissive laws and generous refugee policies in several European nations, including Britain.

Bakri, the legal scholar in London, said many extremists were inspired to action by a fatwa, or religious decree, issued by Bin Laden in 1998, in which he said American civilians were legitimate targets in his jihad, or holy war. Bakri said he has clashed with Islamic “jihadists.” Yet he conceded that some Muslims in Europe are so incensed by U.S. “imperialist” policies that they are easily induced to commit violence against civilians.

“They have the mentality of jihad, but they are not capable by themselves of a plan of action,” said Bakri, who leads an organization in North London called Al Muhajiroun, or “the emigrants.” The group has railed against Jews and homosexuals, and calls Bin Laden a “freedom fighter” and a “hero.”

Bakri mentioned a public statement issued by Bin Laden prior to Sept. 11 warning that Americans would not live in peace or security as long as U.S. forces remained in Saudi Arabia.

“Bin Laden is a man who fulfills his promises,” Bakri said.

* * *

Times staff writers Craig Pyes in Paris and Marjorie Miller in London contributed to this report.


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